I’m feeling a little uninspired to blog these days. It’s a tough beast, this Foreign Service blogging thing. It’s not that life overseas – life as a U.S. government representative overseas in particular – is boring. It’s not that at all. There’s so much I could say, that I would like to say, but should I? Would what I think is funny be seen as offensive by a Beninese person or third-country national who stumbled upon my blog? I’m in the business of public diplomacy — I definitely don’t want that. Might another Foreign Service Officer judge my words in a way that impacts my career? It certainly happens. And then there’s safety. I think I’m wise enough to withhold the sort of information that could be used for harm, but what if I make a misstep?
Officially, personal blogging is allowed by Foreign Service Officers – allowed, but highly discouraged. I can’t even count how many new blogs I’ve seen pop up over the past few years by excited new hires, only to quickly be abandoned after the “here is why social media is evil and will kill your career and ruin the world” portion of A-100. Okay, there’s no official social media is evil portion, but it comes up. Frequently. I’ve been lucky in that no one has ever told me to stop blogging, but many officers (and their family members) do receive such orders from supervisors or chiefs of mission.
My policy has always been to blog but blog smartly. But more and more, being smart about blogging takes quite a bit of the fun away. Is blogging even a worthwhile pursuit if I’m self-censoring so much that I’m not sharing any of the truly interesting stuff? I don’t know. I’m trying to sort that out.
While I do, let me buy myself some time with this post — a submission to the regular Foreign Service blog roundup. The topic: five good things and five bad things about your current post that somoene considering bidding on a job there should know. Let me point out that my list pertains only to the experience of living overseas as a diplomat. Being in Benin as a Peace Corps volunteer, missionary, or nonprofit worker is definitely a different experience.
- The Embassy community. Cotonou is a tiny post. There are about a dozen direct hire Americans and very few other Americans in the expat community, basically just Peace Corps volunteers and a scattering of missionaries. The larger expat community is mostly Francophone and quite hard to break into if you don’t have much more than the standard FSI 3/3 French. As a result, the Embassy community becomes very tight. It feels a bit like a freshman dorm, before all the athletes find each other and the pre-med students break off and the drama enthusiasts form their own little group. Here, because there’s really little other choice, you end up hanging out with people with different backgrounds and in different life stages — people you probably would have overlooked in another setting. But it keeps things interesting, and the camraderie can be great.
- The calm. Benin is politically stable. People are friendly and like Americans. The traffic is manageable. It’s an easy place to live if you’re the sort of person who likes a short commute home from work and then to relax at home. Embassy houses are very comfortable. All have at least four bedrooms. Many have large yards and/or a pool. Design choices and construction standards can be… intresting. But still, you’ll be living well. It’s not a high stress environment.
- Food. Unfortunately I’m not a huge fan of West African food, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many international food options there are. Good pizza is readibly available, as is Thai and Indian as good as any you’ll find in the States, Russian, lots of French, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and some mediocre but passable sushi. Good quality fruits and vegetables are plentiful. There are plenty of grocery stores. Fresh seafood is everywhere.
- Beaches. Cotonou is on the water, so beach options abound. The strong undertow makes swimming in the ocean tricky, but there are also lots of pools and a nice day resort where swimming is possible in a lagoon. There are a few decent resorts about an hour or two outside of town where you can spend a weekend. There are nice restaurants where you can enjoy delicious fresh catches. If you like beach culture, this is a good place.
- Household help. Like many new Foreign Service Officers, I scoffed at the stories from seasoned FSOs during A-100 about how they employed a small army of household staff during some previous tour. I was not like that, I maintained. I was independent. I had lived abroad by myself before. I would be a different sort of FSO. Then I had a kid. Okay, I guess we need a nanny. Then the reality of living abroad and working a real job set in. Okay, maybe a housekeeper wouldn’t be so bad either. It still feels a little strange to have people working for me at my home, but at the end of the day it makes life a whole lot easier, and it’s supporting several families. I’ve come around on the whole household help issue, and the availablity of comparatively low cost and high quality help is a huge advantage to living in Benin.
- The Embassy community. Like I said, Cotonou is a tiny post. This has the potential to be very good, but it also has the potential to be very bad. In such a small post, one or two bad apples can make life miserable for everyone.
- The lack of entertainment options. There’s no movie theatre, no mall, no public park. There’s not a lot to do. Social options are the beach, a few hotel pools, restaurants, and pot-lucks at other people’s homes. This rotation can get a little tiring. If you’re single, young, or otherwise able to roll with the punches and be adverturous, you can make your own fun exploring giant markets, nightclubs, traditional festivals in tiny villages, commissioning boat rides, heading up north to a small safari park, and so forth. If you have small kids, health issues, don’t speak French, etc., finding fun but still safe things to do can be trickier.
- The isolation. Abandon whatever romantic notions you had about using Benin as a jumping off point for all sorts of exotic African travels. It’s really hard and really expensive to travel within the continent. There are only direct flights to Kenya, Morocco and recently South Africa; they will cost you around $1,000. Unless you’re willing to fly on pretty questionable airlines, anywhere else needs to be reached via Europe. What about driving? Ha. I assure you that Timbuktu is not as close to Cotonou as it appears on a map. And maps don’t factor in dirt roads and makeshift checkpoints. It’s also a long and expensive flight back to the U.S., so it’s unlikely you’ll be getting home more than once in your two-year tour.
- Slow Internet. I understand that Benin’s Internet used to be a lot worse, so I’m very grateful for the improvements that we enjoy. Still, it’s less than ideal. We pay three or four times as much as we would back in the United States for a connection speed that at its best is tolerable and at its worst is non-functional. It’s probably better than a lot of other places in Africa, but if streaming videos is essential for your happiness or if a spouse is counting on telecommuting to a job back in the States, think again.
- The difficulty of seemingly simple stuff. Some people love making bagels, sour cream or tortillas from scratch. We are not those people. But here, we’ve been forced to become those people. Your normal routines will take much, much more time here, even with household help to carry a lot of the load. You can’t pay your satellite bill online, and you might have to go to the store three times before the one person who knows how to process your payment is actually around, for example. You may have to hit seven different grocery stores to accomplish what you would back home in one. If one member of your family isn’t working outside of the home, this all is manageable and actually helps fill the time. But with all adult members of your family working, daily chores can eat significantly into your precious free time.
Of course, this is just our experience as a first-tour couple towing along a baby and dog. I’d venture to guess that our friends and colleagues here would have at least somewhat different opinions.